...now here is an instrument capable of spewing forth true obscenity, you know? If ever there's an obscene noise to be made on an instrument, it's going to come out of a guitar... Let's be realistic about this, the guitar can be the single most blasphemous device on the face of the earth. That's why I like it.... The disgusting stink of a too-loud electric guitar: now that's my idea of a good time.
It is impossible to overstate the impact that the electric guitar has had on the worldwide culture of the twentieth century. What was at first a simple hack to make backing guitarists audible over the thump, crash and wail of sprawling swing bands transformed the once-humble guitar into the dominant noisemaker of our times. Who knew it was simple lack of amplitude that made ugly, geeky guys unattractive to women? Plug that man in, friend, and hold back the screaming girls. And, in the meantime, hear the story of In The Beginning:
The magnetic pickup itself was invented in the1920s. Lloyd Loar (an employee of the Gibson company) did some of the first tinkering, but made a less-than-successful attempt to start his own business which doomed him to obscurity. It fell to the Rowe-DeArmond company to manufacture the first clip-on pickup for acoustic guitars, and good 'ol Gibson was the first to integrate a pickup into a guitar (still hollow-bodied, for now) with its ES-150 model in 1935. The pickup in this guitar would everafter be known by the name of its most high-profile user, Charlie Christian. Christian was the first to make the new "electric guitar" a unique solo instrument.
Playing hollow-bodied guitars at high volume introduced the (then) problem of feedback. The thin wood tops of these guitars were just too easy to sympathetically vibrate. The solution? You could either thicken up the top and/or back of the guitar to create the semi-hollow body, or you could just go whole hog and use a solid block of wood.
See, the thing about a pickup is that the string vibrations are all that matters, unlike in an acoustic guitar, in which the wood body must resonate in order for the instrument to produce audible sound. As such, you can mount the pickups and strings on damned near anything and still make it work. In fact, the denser the material, the longer the sustain of the plucked note. The possibilities were just too great.
Two engineers at the National guitar company (makers of the DoBro and National resonator guitars), George Beauchamp and Paul Barth teamed up with new National employee Adolph Rickenbacker and opened the Electro String Company to produce solid-wood Hawaiian guitars, the first of which got lei'd in 1931. Sales were brisk; that silly Hawaiian music was very popular at the time. But Hawaiian music was certainly not rock, and wasn't even, properly, guitar music.
Luthier Les Paul did not care for subtlety. In 1941 he slapped a couple of pickups and a guitar neck on a four-by-four block of wood, glued the sides of an old hollow-bodied Epiphone guitar on, wired up some controls and called it The Log. He trotted it on over to Gibson who, not surprisingly (given the appearance of the thing) laughed in his face.
Mr. Leo Fender made them shut up real quick. He'd invented a much smaller-profile pickup (the "Charlie Christian" was frickin' huge, requring a good portion of the guitar body to mount), and once again the Hawaiian guitar was used as a test bed, though this time with a guitar-style neck attached to the "frying pan" body. He built only one, and had a waiting list of musicians wanting to play it. By 1948 Fender had his own company and began manufacturing the Fender Broadcaster, which was renamed the Fender Telecaster due to a conflict with a line of drums sold by Gretsch. Soon to follow (1954) was the iconic Fender Stratocaster, and rock n' roll was off and running.
The Gibson company came to their senses in 1950 and called up Les Paul. 1952 saw the introduction of the first Gibson Les Paul, which differed from Fender's guitars not only in body style and weight, but, by 1957, technologically. Gibson then began using humbucking, dual-coil pickups which not only cancelled the annoying hum sometimes produced by bright, twangy Fender-style single-coils, but had a "fatter", mellower sound which was destined to be the basis of "hard rock" and, later, "metal" and its progeny.
These three guitars, the Strat, the Tele and the Les Paul, are still the workhorses of rock and roll.
The electric guitar has endured because it is one of the most expressive instruments ever created. A good player can make a guitar scream in pain, cry with sorrow, or sing with joy. Hook up a wah wah pedal and it'll even talk to you; tell you stories. You can get good enough in a couple of days to have fun rawking out three chords REAL LOUD, or you can devote a lifetime to mastering all the subtlety of that wood and metal.
Pick up an electric guitar and you're holding your soul in your hands.
Much information gleaned from The Guitar Handbook by Ralph Denyer.